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Rocky Keele

Wall Spaces

Damon Arnold opened his eyes to blackness. He lay on his back, perfectly still, straining to catch the slight sound waves only inches from his ear. There, from within the walls, came that skittering noise again. This was the third night in a row that the sound had woken him. He imagined that the scratching sound was coming from the filthy paws of some sleepless rodent, a mouse probably. It better not be rats, he thought, or he would have harsh words for Mr. Falkner, the landlord, who repeatedly assured him there were no “vermin” on the property.

Satisfied that his ears weren't playing tricks, he pulled the sheets up to his chin, shivered slightly and wondered again why he was renting this dump of an apartment. Correction, he thought, and pictured the skeletal landlord explaining to him, “This ain't no apartment, sir, this here's a cottage. You don't got no neighbors above you, or below you, see, so its a cottage. That's what we call 'em around here.”

As quickly as the question of his presence in this decrepit structure occurred, so did the answer. He was cheap. Why pay five times the cost of his cottage, he thought, for a nice place up town, when in reality he was hardly ever here. His new job would only allow him to be here in the evenings anyway. Still, mustering a tidbit of self respect, he realized it wasn't just that he was cheap, but also that the location here was excellent for his recreational purposes: writing and riding. This secluded cottage was perfect for both pursuits. Few people around meant that he would have near total silence for his late hour writing sessions, while being at the far edge of civilization would give him access to plenty of mountain bike trails.

There! That noise again, this time sounding like a burrowing mole. The sound couldn't be more than two inches from his head. It sounded much larger than a mouse. He rolled his head slowly towards the wall. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and he could make out the puffy cloud patterns that the previous tenant had painted on the light blue walls, but he couldn't see the source of the disturbance coming from within.

The scratching continued for two more hours before Damon Arnold finally fell asleep thinking that he would move his mattress to the other side of the room in the morning.

As the sun peaked over the eastern mountain range, Damon Arnold prepared for his daily bike ride and remembered his late night decision to move the mattress. He decided that he'd do it after the ride, but, in fact, he didn't get to it after the ride either – he'd found a great new single track trail, and had explored it longer than he'd meant to. Getting back to the the cottage late, he didn't have time to rearrange the bedroom before work. He promised himself that he'd move the mattress as soon as he got home.

Throughout the day, anytime a lull occurred in his computer programming, his mind drifted back to the rodents in the wall. Damon was fairly certain that he had not only heard shuffling and digging in the walls, but also pattering in the low ceiling. Again, he hoped that the sounds were not coming from rats. Mice were dirty and disgusting, true, but rats! They were huge and Damon had heard that they were ferocious at times.

“Damon, are you alright?” asked Bob Daniels, his new supervisor. Bob stood looking down at Damon for several seconds before Damon could chase the thoughts of rats out of his startled mind. He hadn't realized he'd been staring into space for so long, but he must have been, to have caught Bob's attention.

Bob tilted his head slightly, and as if questioning a lost child said, “You don't look so good, Damon. Is something wrong?”

Damon Arnold, finally recovered, shook his head and said, “No, no, everything is fine. I just didn't get the greatest sleep last night, that's all.”

Bob seemed satisfied and said, “Ok, if that's all. Probably stress from the new job, eh? Let me know if you have any questions, though.” Bob turned to walk back to his office.

Damon Arnold blurted out his question. Bob had said to ask if he had questions, and before thinking it through, he heard his own voice ask, “Do you think rats can dig into the walls of an apartment? You know, get in between the dry wall and the outer covering.”

It took Damon Arnold another twenty minutes to explain to his new boss why he was asking about rats in the walls.

Still cursing himself for being so stupid as to mention the noises in the walls to his boss, Damon Arnold finally pulled his gray Volkswagen Jetta into the parking space alloted to cottage #1, his cottage. All he wanted to do now was to get a microwave frozen dinner prepared to consume. All this thinking about mice, rats and sounds that go bump in the night had left Damon Arnold feeling like he could eat an entire side of beef. Frozen barbecue chicken would have to suffice.

He slit the plastic covering, and tossed the frozen dinner into the microwave. Needing to kill six to eight minutes on high, he retired to the only bedroom of the cottage to change from his work clothes. He quickly exchanged his dress slacks and button up shirt for painter shorts and a comfy tee-shirt.

Hanging up his work shirt, he noticed the cracking paint in the closet. He wondered how long it had been since this place has seen a coat of paint. Only four hundred bucks a month, he reminded himself once again. In the rear upper corner, along with his other shirts, hung an eight legged friend. Damon Arnold wondered if he should leave the spider to help him thin the growing moth population in the cottage, or kill it for his own peace of mind. Having decided on the latter, he bent over to retrieve a shoe, when the microwave buzzer sounded, announcing his low calorie chicken delight.

His stomach growled when he strode into the kitchen and smelled the tangy barbecue sauce. Movement on the imitation tile floor caught his attention, however, and he immediately lost his appetite.

A six foot snake smoothly glided across the linoleum beneath the microwave.

'Holy crap' was what Damon Arnold meant to say as he jumped back several feet. He slowed his breathing and forced himself to think rationally and not let instinctive fear rule his mind. He watched the snake for several moments. It was dark black, as large around as his wrist at its thickest point, and moved with a graceful slithering motion. Its tail was under the refrigerator, but Damon Arnold guessed the length to be in excess of six feet. It appeared to have strange scales on its underside, almost like the suction cups of an octopus tentacle. He had never seen a snake like this before and wondered if it was some mutated specimen; there were copper mines and smelters in this area with plenty of toxic tailings left behind.

He reached for his cell phone on the counter top, and called the stick thin landlord.

“Hello, Mr. Falkner, its Damon Arnold, in cottage number one...well, not so good at the moment. I have a huge snake in my kitchen right now, and I was wondering if you might have a garden rake or hoe I could use to shoo it out...no, it doesn't appear to be a rattle snake...yeah, I'd guess six feet...Ok, see you in a minute.” He hung up and went to open the front door. He glanced back to the snake just in time to see its tail disappear under the refrigerator.

Damn! How would they get the thing out now, he wondered.

Mr Falkner, looking like a scarecrow straight from the corn field, showed up carrying a rake. Damon Arnold pictured himself using the rake to pierce the reptile and slow cook it over an open fire. His stomach voiced it emptiness again, and he wanted nothing more than to get rid of the reptile and the skeletor man, sit back and enjoy his microwaved chicken.

“Sorry, mister Falkner, it just went under the refrigerator.”

Mr. Falkner bent over, sharp knees threatening to tear through his well worn levis.

“Oh, yep, I see him under there alright. Six feet you say?”

“At least six feet”, Damon Arnold said.

Mr. Falkner gave a low whistle, dropped down to his knees and reached a thin arm under the refrigerator.

“I'd wager its a king snake” he said. “They're the only black ones round these parts. I've handled my share of em.” Mr. Falkner pulled his arm free, and Damon Arnold was relieved to see that Falkner's hand was empty.

Mr. Falkner looked up and said, “I wouldn't be too worried about it. He'll mosey on out when he's ready, same way he came in.”

Damon Arnold began to protest, but Mr. Falkner cut him off.

“You're a bit scared about the creepy crawlers, are ya?” he asked. “Look, I'm sorry, but the fridge can't come out, so there really ain't nothing we can do anyhow. Like I said, he'll leave if you just don't bother him.”

Damon Arnold wished Mr. Falkner a good night, and hoped the snake would leave before he had to go back to his mattress on the floor and the sounds in the wall.

He dreamed of snakes and rats and spiders, and was grateful to be woken up from the nightmare - until he heard the noises in the wall. There was a thump, and then more scratching and digging. What are they searching for in there, wondered Damon Arnold, still trying to shake the disturbing dream from his head.

Now he heard the tiny patter of feet run across the ceiling. Not just one rodent, but a dozen. He sat up, and tried to calm his fears. He wasn't a small boy, afraid of strange noises in the night, he reminded himself. There was a louder, dragging sort of noise from the ceiling, then a shrill squeak, then silence. Is this waking the neighbors, Damon Arnold asked himself. How could it not be? It sounds like a war zone up there.

He quietly rolled off his mattress, turned on the light, and stood staring at the ceiling, half expecting it to come crashing down in a cloud of dead mice, rats, and insects. What was up there, he wondered. It was quiet now. He stood looking for several more moments. This is nuts, he told himself. He wiped a small bead of perspiration from his forehead, then turned off the light and went back to bed. But not before retrieving his pocket knife from out of his shorts.

At first light the following morning, Damon Arnold woke unrefreshed. He forced himself to get ready for his morning ride, after all, this was why he'd wanted to rent this run-down, out of the way shack. He left the cottage, pushing his bike, when something snagged his foot. He fell, cursed, and lost his hold on the bike. He looked back to see the culprit, and a shiver went up his back. The object that had tripped him was a black root with some kind of weird fungus growing on its bottom. It immediately reminded him of the snake with it's sucker covered underside. Still stranger was the fact that there were no trees on this side of the cottage, only on the other.

Damon Arnold followed the swell of the ground where the root sank below the topsoil, and followed it back to the cottage. The root appeared to be coming from under the cottage. He walked around to the opposite side of the small building, noting the loose rocks mortared together to form the bottom third of the cottage's outside walls. Plenty of holes and openings for mice to get through; and snakes as well.

On the opposite side, he found the tree he was looking for, but was still skeptical that the root that had tripped him belonged to this particular tree. He guessed it was possible, since roots did seem to burrow under houses, looking for sewer and water lines to clog. Still, something didn't seem right.

On his way back from the ride, the nearest neighbor's dog gave chase to the bright yellow mountain bike and rider. Damon Arnold poured on the speed and hoped that the large canine wouldn't really bite him if it got the chance. With the barking beast in pursuit, it would be a close call to get through the front gate in time. Damon Arnold put all his strength into winning this race, although it appeared that he'd only bring home an honorable mention. Suddenly, the barking stopped. Damon Arnold turned back to see the dog, ears bent low, hightailing it away from the cottage at top speed. How strange, he thought, but since he was again late for work, he let it go without more consideration.

The work days went by slowly for Damon Arnold, but the evenings and nights too quickly. Not only did he want to continue his writing late into the night and never go to sleep, he dreaded more and more the now routine wakings caused by the nightly disturbances in the old walls.

He spoke with Mr. Falkner several times about the noises, but each time the emaciated landlord investigated, he claimed he found nothing.

After several weeks of restless nights, Damon Arnold gave up his beloved mountain bike in favor of catching more shut eye in the still mornings. Nothing seemed to relax him in the evenings any more; not his writing, not a symphony from the masters, not even reading sci-fi or playing computer games. After several more weeks of the nightly wall noises, his nerves were at the breaking point. They finally snapped when, one night, after giving up any attempt to sleep while the noises scratched and dug, he found his toilet clogged with one of the strange roots that had tripped him earlier.

He dressed, and drove to the local Wal-Mart, where he purchased an ax, shovel and small crowbar. He told himself that he would get to the bottom of these roots and noises, even if he had to tear down the entire cottage.

He entered the tiny bathroom with crowbar in hand. Although he didn't have much room to maneuver, he thrust the crow bar down into the toilet bowl, hoping that the root would break free so that he could pull it out. The strange root did come loose, but not as Damon Arnold had planned. The moment his crowbar struck it, the root fled back down the toilet, but not before leaving a cloud of purplish sludge staining the bowl.

Startled, he dropped the crowbar onto the bathroom floor, chipping the toilet lid in the confusion. He wondered if the root, in fact, had been the snake from his kitchen? It had not been moving in the bowl, and it was still there even after his half hour shopping trip. Clearly no root could move like he just witnessed. But how could the snake have survived under water for so long, he wondered. It was possible that the snake had taken breaths and he didn't notice; he had thought it was a root after all and hadn't really been watching it every moment.

Picking up his ax, Damon Arnold went cautiously into the kitchen, eyes scanning the dirty floor for any signs of movement. None.

He took a flashlight from his cupboard, and decided to have a look around outside. He eased out through the kitchen door, and made his way to the point where he had been tripped by the 'root'. It was still there, though with his recent experience in the bathroom, the root now took on a malevolent form in the glow of the flashlight. Not wanting to attract attention, he switched the flashlight off. He glanced to the sky, hoping for moonlight to give him illumination, but only found the red eye of Mars staring back. Well, he thought, he didn't need light for the task at hand. He raised the ax high, and brought it down with all the force he could muster directly on the strange root. Something warm splattered his face, and he thought he heard a distant cry. Feeling around with his foot, he found the root gone, as he had anticipated.

Damon Arnold now had a thought that made his skin crawl. He rushed back inside, striding to his bedroom wall with ax in hand. He heard the thrashing noises emanating from the cloud covered walls even before entering the room. Scratching. Digging. Clawing. His mind conjured up the picture of some undead creature breaking free from its earthly tomb, intent on hunting and feeding on human flesh.

Pushing the thoughts aside, he again raised his ax. His swings made quick work of the flimsy walls, and after several moments, he had torn away a large chunk of wall. He dropped the ax, and cleared the hanging debris away by hand. As the hole became clear, so did his vision of the horror within. He had assumed that rodents were responsible for the digging noises, but he was mistaken. The interior of the wall, as far as the hole revealed, was filled with the black root. The strange mushroom-like growth covered the bottom half of all the roots he could see. Some of the roots slithered upwards, others down, others to the side. Two of the roots, apparently sensing their freedom, struggled before his eyes, and began to make their way free of the wall. They pulsed slowly down the side of the wall, and eventually reached the cheaply carpeted floor.

Damon Arnold snatched up his ax and backed away, his mind attempting to comprehend exactly what it was he was seeing. It was an infestation. He had to tell the landlord. He glanced at the clock near his mattress – 2:34 am. Well, this couldn't wait, he thought. And besides, there was absolutely no way he was sleeping in this root infested cottage ever again. They would have to let him rent another cottage – wait, what was he thinking? He would never sleep in this cottage or any other on this property. He wondered if he should just gather up his belongings, and head to a hotel right now. No, he thought, he at least needed to notify the landlord, get his money back, and then go to a hotel. He could find another apartment tomorrow after work, he told himself. Probably not for only four hundred a month, but still cheap.

Damon Arnold again went outside into the dark night, only starlight to guide his footsteps. Remembering Mars, he wished that the god of War were indeed here, and could cast fiery bolts from his chariot to clear this strange infestation. Fire, he thought, could very well be the weapon of choice against the intruding roots. They didn't appear to mind water, if the one in his toilet was any indication of the swarm in general. With this in mind, he decided to look at the septic tank behind his cottage.

The mass of roots awaiting him sent Damon Arnold's mind reeling. There were dozens - perhaps even fifty - of the large roots protruding from the area all around the septic tank. As if sensing his foot steps, several of the dark limbs began slithering towards him. Now he recognized the 'snake' in his kitchen. It hadn't been a snake after all, but one of these monstrous things. He backed away quickly, but tripped on something. Thinking that a root had attacked him, he scrambled up. Not a root, just a baseball bat left by the neighbor kid.

He made his way to the thin landlord's residence, wondering what he would tell him. He could picture the scene, even now - Mr. Skeletor, meet the roots from hell.

A motion detector controlled porch light flicked on as Damon Arnold ascended the front steps and knocked softly on the landlord's door. He waited and noticed the many trees overhanging the house, and wondered if the old landlord had had any problem with the weird roots. No answer. He knocked again, this time with more force. Nothing. He waited for several minutes, and finally banged on the door with enough force that dust and crackled paint fell to the worn porch.

Ok, he thought, he had tried to do his duty and tell the landlord, but he wasn't going to stick around here any longer. He'd come back tomorrow and get his junk, but for now, he just wanted to get away from these creepy roots and cottage.

He passed one of the trees overhanging his cottage, saw his Jetta, and stopped. The keys were in the cottage, next to his mattress. He could see the roots moving nearby; they continued to writhe like charmed snakes dancing in rhythm to a piper. Should he attempt the cottage for the keys, he wondered. He'd have to decide quickly, for several of the larger roots near the septic tank were already crawling towards him.

He sensed and then felt the root climb onto his shoulder. He swung blindly, with all his strength, and felt the satisfying crunch of the ax head as it bit into the disgusting root. Except it wasn't one of the damned roots. It was Mr. Falkner, the landlord. Damon Arnold's ax had caved in the right side of his chest and was embedded up to the handle in old man's rib cage. Damon Arnold mindlessly let go of the ax handle, and the landlord slowly crumpled to the ground.

“Oh, sweet heaven, what have I done?” whispered Damon Arnold. “Mr Falkner, I'm sorry, I thought...I thought you were one of those...those roots. I am so sorry.”

The landlord said nothing, but only stared into Damon Arnold's face as if asking why he had done this hideous thing.

Even in the darkness, Damon Arnold could see the landlord's life gushing out of the terrible wound in his side.

“They're not roots.” whispered the landlord.

“What? What did you say?” asked Damon Arnold.

The landlord's eyes closed and he said, “They're visitors.”

Damon Arnold knelt beside the old man, and asked, “What do you mean they're visitors? The roots? You mean, like E.Ts? Like little green men?”

The landlord did not reply, and never would again.

Damon Arnold undressed and neatly folded his clothes. He set them gently on the dresser, and then stepped over the wriggling roots that surrounded his mattress. He lay down, carefully, so as not to disturb the visitors any more than necessary. He had just killed a man to learn that the walls held them - not rodents. He closed his eyes and felt the suction cups advancing up his bare right leg. His last sane thought was that maybe rats in the walls wouldn't have been so bad after all.

The End

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